For this I am grateful

Monday, November 26, 2001

In an airport last week, a security guard lifted a nail clipper from my purse, opened it and officiously snapped off the little filing board.

As I continued on, I noticed that in a shop near my boarding gate were, yes, nail clippers.

A few days later, I read about the man who, in his rush to catch his plane in Atlanta, unwittingly committed a major security breach. The airport shut down for four hours as the National Guard and airport officers scrambled to catch someone who didn't even know he was being chased.

The security bumblings reflect inadequate training and staffing, sure. But they also, perhaps mostly, reflect the fact that we don't know how to be a police state. We're no good at it.

And in this season of thanksgiving, I am grateful.

Since Sept. 11, we have pulled together to battle terrorism. But we can't deny that much of our domestic response has been a series of fits and starts, small failures and embarrassments. Here's a story for you:

A Florida Highway Patrol officer, after issuing a speeding ticket to a Jordanian man on the turnpike, felt ill a short time later. Fearing anthrax, he called for an emergency medical team, which airlifted him from the turnpike, briefly closing the northbound lanes. It turned out the poor officer had suffered an anxiety attack. His own fear had felled him.

Not only have we shown our poor ability to mimic a police state, but we chafe at every political maneuver that might draw us closer to becoming one.

OK, not everyone chafes, but there always are enough resisters to turn even the smallest threat to freedom and civil liberties into a robust public debate.

For this, I am also grateful.

When President Bush issued an executive order establishing secret military tribunals to try suspected terrorists, for example, even conservatives like William Safire howled in protest. He wrote that the decree gives Bush "dictatorial power to jail or execute aliens" through the use of "military kangaroo courts."

"It's time for conservative iconoclasts and card-carrying hard-liners to stand up for American values," Safire railed.

Many are. Politicians, commentators and civil rights groups are fighting the president's legislation that gives the government greater powers to monitor telephone calls and e-mail and to detain immigrants. They're fighting the Department of Justice's new rule allowing the government to monitor communications between federal detainees and their lawyers.

I find this commitment to ideals quite remarkable. We have suffered through one of the bloodiest, deadliest days on American soil. We know that there are people in the world who hate us and wouldn't think twice about killing any one of us. Yet, in our fear and grief and anger, there is also a deep-rooted decency and sense of fairness. This fact is clearer now than ever before.

We want to protect the rights even of those who might have contributed to this horror. We want to protect the civilians in Afghanistan from the bombing. We're concerned that we're not dropping enough food to feed their hungry citizens.

I know we don't all agree on what's right. Some believe we ought to bomb Afghanistan into a grease spot. Some think we ought to deport all Arabs. Some are hoarding Cipro at the possible expense of the rest of us. But for these folks, too, I am grateful.

We live in a land of great privilege; we have the resources and freedom to publicize our opinions, or to be selfish and myopic, without much risk of repercussion.

Perhaps this feeds our enemies' ambitions. They know we could never be like them, despite our great power. And that means we'll always be more vulnerable. Some frantic traveler will always slip by security to catch his plane. Some foreign suspect will always slip through our clutches because we adhered to judicial process.

But that is precisely what I am most thankful during this time of thanksgiving. We are scared and angry and confused. We want to wrap our hands around Osama bin Laden and make him pay for the evil he has brought to our shores. Yet we continue the struggle to hold to our ideals, even though it means we'll sometimes fail and embarrass ourselves.

I hope next Thanksgiving I can say the same thing.